Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Pierre Boulez on the Mystical Heaven of Eastern Music

Pierre Boulez once said that far too many Westerners believe that all is golden sunsets and mystical heaven in “the East”. (Perhaps, in many cases, to compensate for our history of colonialism/imperialism.). Boulez says:
“I find that many people form a too sentimental and emotional idea of Oriental music. They now dive into it like tourists setting off to visit a landscape that is about to vanish.” (Pg 421)

We often glorify cultures other than our own in a way that cultures other than our own glorify ours. Since the days of Debussy and even Mozart, the Orient has often been seen through rose-tined spectacles. The music, culture, religion and even the politics has often been seen uncritically. Boulez says:
“There is a great foolishness in the Westerner who goes to India, and I detest the idea of a ‘lost paradise’. It is the most odious forms of affectation.”

This romantic view of the East has been apparent since Mozart’s ‘Rondo al la Turk’ and before. Even the oriental influences on Debussy are responsible for propagating the myth of an “Eastern Paradise”.
Boulez says that Indian music reached a state of perfection very many years ago. Most ethnic musics are now dead because the economic/sociological situations which created them are becoming less and less prevalent. Either that or these musics have remained static. Boulez himself has carefully studied Indian, Peruvian and various musics from African countries. Though he says:
“I have found in them an ethics of existence rather than an aesthetic of enjoyment… The influence is on my spirit and not on my work.”

In other words, the value of these ethnic musics is ‘spiritual’ and not musical (formal/technical?). This may be the reason why many people have believed Western music to be “soulless” and “overly intellectual”. That Western society has become too “technological” and “mechanized”and thus that we have become victims of our own creations.
Boulez specifically dislikes the superficial way in which Eastern musical forms and ideas have been used in Western music. Is he talking about Olivier Messiaen or the Beatles? The Beatles were accused of going on a joy-ride on the back of Eastern mysticism and music and of accepting only its “surface” elements: e.g., kaftans, sitars, yoga and mind-altering drugs. Could these criticisms also be aimed at Cage, Messiaen and Stockhausen? All of these composers have used and adopted ideas from Eastern music and philosophy without also accepting the whole show.
Boulez finishes his essay with an absolute statement on the relationship between Western and Eastern music:
“The musical systems of the East and West cannot have any bearing on one another and this will be quickly realised by experienced composers of character.”


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